Monday, July 27, 2009

Reason, emotion, and decision-making

Steven Quartz does an opinion piece in Trends in Cognitive Science noting that the tidy separation of our decision making into cognitive and emotional components is not appropriate. Two slightly edited clips:
Many models of judgment and decision-making (JDM) posit distinct cognitive and emotional contributions to decision-making under uncertainty. Cognitive processes typically involve exact computations according to a cost-benefit calculus, whereas emotional processes typically involve approximate, heuristic processes that deliver rapid evaluations without mental effort. However, it remains largely unknown what specific parameters of uncertain decision the brain encodes, the extent to which these parameters correspond to various decision-making frameworks, and their correspondence to emotional and rational processes. A review of basic research suggests that emotional processes encode in a precise quantitative manner the basic parameters of financial decision theory, indicating a reorientation of emotional and cognitive contributions to risky choice.

Despite the popularity and commonsense appeal of distinguishing between cognitive and emotional contributions to JDM, many fundamental issues remain unresolved. Theories can be characterized in terms of the representations and the computations over those representations they posit, and it remains unclear in what ways cognitive and emotional contributions to JDM differ along these dimensions. That is, at the level of representation, what specific parameters of uncertain decision contexts are encoded by the brain, to what extent do such representations correspond to the parameters of various decision-making frameworks, and to what extent do putatively distinct cognitive and emotional contributions to JDM correspond to distinct underlying representations of uncertain decision contexts? Addressing these issues poses several challenges, not least that competing theories are not behaviorally distinguishable. This suggests that adjudicating among different theories requires neural studies that use quantitative and parametric frameworks with suitable resolution to distinguish among the main parameters of these various models and disassociating the representation of their basic parameters from other potential components of uncertain choice, including learning, motivation and salience. Based on recent work using such experimental designs, I suggest that putative distinctions between cognitive and emotional contributions to JDM at the level of representation collapse. Emerging evidence suggests that emotional contributions to JDM do not encode approximate, heuristic evaluations. Rather, it suggests that emotional processes encode the precise, mathematically defined parameters of traditionally cognitive accounts of decision-making from economics and related fields, such as finance. On a more general note, such findings indicate that once-considered basic distinctions, such as that between cognition and emotion, do not map seamlessly onto brain functioning. That is, just as studies of the deep interconnectivity among emotional and cognitive structures suggests that assigning cognitive or emotional specialization to structures is deeply problematic, proposed functional distinctions, such as complexity differences between emotional and cognitive representations and computations, are likewise problematic.

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought that the old emotional-rational dichotomy, while surely a great advance in human thought, and a useful practical heuristic, is just as surely a grand simplification of what's really going on in the brain. The brain has many connected subsystem all adding their bit to the whole process that culminates in the conscious inner narrative (if you like to think of it flowing that way). Those subsystems aren't really emotional or rational they're just doing their functional bit and sending the results on to interested parties. The emotional-rational thing is really a "top-down" classification system for what appears in consciousness rather than two distinct activity types in the brain, that we might think of like the the hot and cold plumbing systems in a house.